Officials' Neglect Allowed Island Sprawl to Spread

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April 6, 2010 by   - () Leave a Comment

One end of Crescent Bar Island on the Columbia River in Washington.

Editor's Note: The Wenatchee (Wash.) World published this story tracing the evolution of development on Crescent Bar Island, an island resort in the Columbia River.

Decades of failed or ineffective enforcement of building codes, no defined property lines and leaseholders who were allowed to take up more space than their leases allowed.

That’s how an “RV” campsite on Crescent Bar Island became a sprawling, semipermanent subdivision of private property owners on public, Grant County PUD-owned land, Grant County officials say.

Some 300 leaseholders now own homes on an island that began as a large, partially manmade sandbar, created during the construction of Wanapum Dam. Some 100 more own condos there.

PUD officials say their new federal mandate as dam licensees obliges them to return the island to full public use, recreation and wildlife protection. Leases expire in 2012.

Early Development Recalled

Sam Lorenz, emergency manager for Grant County, was a county building official in 1976, and witnessed firsthand the island’s gradual transition.

The RV park on Crescent Bar Island.

Grant County had no building codes or ordinances for areas outside population centers like Ephrata or Moses Lake until 1976, when the state passed a uniform building code, Lorenz said.

The new law didn’t affect existing construction. Enforcement lacked in the early years.

Lorenz remembers that at the time, the island’s RV lot was still used for weekend camping.

Then came an idea to copy RV sites in Arizona, which allowed wintering Snow Birds to leave their RVs at the site year-round.

Gradually, the island’s RV park filled with travel trailers and some park model homes. Some owners started building.

“When we first visited the site in the 1970s, they were expanding the sewer system for it,” Lorenz recalled. “There were some small additions, like covered porches, but I don’t remember any elaborate additions.”

The RV park with its sublease-defined 350-square foot lots was never officially recorded as a plat with the county, Lorenz says. To this day it exists as one large lot. An engineer’s survey is the only document that shows the park’s intended lot layout.

“We got involved in the late 1980s because they were encroaching on fire safety,” Lorenz said. “Neighbors were fighting neighbors as far as who was getting building permits and who wasn’t.”

He added, “I didn’t have the authority to tear anything down without the power of the courts. The prosecutor’s office would take our complaints but not act on them. They said it was a manpower issue.”

“At the time, most were not local citizens,” Lorenz said. “They were from the west side and came over on the weekends. That’s when most of the construction happened. Then, we’d come on the scene Monday through Friday and they’d be gone. We’d only be able to talk to them by phone.”

Crescent Bar Island condos

'No One Knows Where Their Property Line Is'

The RV park residents had an “architectural committee” charged with approving designs of structural additions to the units.

Longtime committee member Joanne Hansen still lives on the island.

“The biggest problem is no one knows where their property line is,” she said. “The county gave them permits to add decks, additions as long as they conformed with the fire code.”

When the county insisted on 10-foot separations for fire-access lanes, leaseholders created the space, but didn’t reduce their property’s footprint. Rather, they spread out in other directions, away from the fire lanes.

Why didn’t the committee enforce lot-size restrictions?

“Just like anything else, they are people who are volunteering to do a job,” Hansen said. “They don’t get paid. They don’t know the rules. The guy down the street got to build something… Nobody came in and put a stop to it. And it just devolved.”

Ed Pace, vice president of Crescent Bar Inc., the company that runs the island, was out of the country and unavailable to comment for this report.

Crescent Bar has been on the radar of Dave Nelson, the county’s director of community planning, since he started with the county in 1996.

“I recognized that things weren’t being done correctly,” Nelson said. “They were crowding things together, putting more than one unit on a lot.”

Nelson said that during his time at the county he met with island leaseholders and told them they could no longer get building permits unless they could show that they were leaving a 5-foot setback from the boundary of their property lines.

'Can of Worms'

He said Crescent Bar hired a surveyor and started to redo boundary lines with the idea of resubmitting a site plan. They never finished.

“They discovered that it was a fairly significant can of worms to do it,” Nelson said. “To adjust boundary lines would have created a burden on someone else. They weren’t willing to go in and do that and clean it up without facing liability or legal issues.”

But wouldn’t that be the county’s responsibility?

“I can’t answer that. We have to maintain safety down there, and we’ve done it,” he said of mandatory 10-foot fire lanes now in place in most of the park.

“You’d have to go back and figure out who made the decision to allow it to be different down there,” he said. “I don’t know that it was illegal at the time. My code says that whatever was legal and existing at the time of the adoption of the newest code, can remain.”

“My building codes cycle every three years,” he said. “If every three years I had to make everything come into compliance, there would be no housing, no affordable housing. You just kind of inherit things and do the best you can.”

Nelson said no building permits have been approved for the Crescent Bar Island RV park since at least 2007, but only two permit applications have come in during that time.

As the county’s current emergency manager, Lorenz says he still worries about island evacuation.

“The island is subject to flooding if we have a dam failure, and there’s only one road out,” he said. “The only safety is to run to high ground, and they’d have a lot of running to do from that campground to get to high ground. During a heavy weekend there, it would be catastrophic.”

In hindsight, he says the county could have acted differently.

“We never really sat down and met with the whole group,” Lorenz said of the islanders. “We met with individuals. That was probably a mistake on our part. Had we approached them as a community, maybe we could have gotten their support, but that’s an afterthought.”

He added, “It’s a nice place. If they’d have maintained it as a public place, it would have been great. I feel sorry for them. But they created their own monster.”

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